2007 was a good year for the stage

When it comes to awards, comedies almost always lose out. In the Oscars’ 79 years, only five actor prizes have gone to performers in comedies. In theaterland, the Oliviers are only slightly less biased toward the serious. But it’s a fair assumption that serious roles like Lear (Ian McKellen) and Macbeth (Patrick Stewart) will dwarf the chances of Mark Rylance, whose priceless, terrified hick from the sticks in “Boeing-Boeing” made him, in this critic’s view, the best actor of 2007.

Subject to agreement with Actors’ Equity, once Rylance has finished his run at Minneapolis’ Guthrie playing the title role in Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” he’ll head to Gotham in April when “Boeing-Boeing” lands at the newly opened Longacre.

The only sad news is that he cannot be joined by co-star Michelle Gomez, whose screamingly funny turn as the determined Lufthansa air hostess Gretchen deserves to win every supporting actress award. Happily, Gomez will be otherwise engaged at the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing the title role in “The Taming of the Shrew,” bowing May 1.

Like all great comedians, Gomez wasn’t content merely to mine every moment for laughs. She literally stretched time, holding auds hostage via a ceaseless stream of wildly inventive line readings and frenzied looks.

Almost the same was true of Paul Ritter in “The Hothouse” at the National. It’s not often that speeches in a Pinter play get rounds of applause, but Ritter’s mesmerizing, saturnine turn as the appropriately named Lush pulled off that feat without ever resorting to grandstanding. Ritter is currently juggling theater offers and will be in Richard Eyre‘s forthcoming movie “The Other Man.”

Theater of the year was the Royal Court, which started 2007 off with a bang. Ian Rickson‘s spellbinding production of “The Seagull” was as laugh-out-loud funny as it was heartbreaking. Sonia Friedman is negotiating to take it to Broadway in the fall. This masterpiece of collective tragicomic playing revolved around a revelatory comic perf from Kristin Scott Thomas, who wins this critic’s vote for actress of the year.

The Court’s new writing under a.d. Dominic Cooke was similarly exciting. Subject to contractual deals, Polly Stenham‘s hit debut, “That Face,” a wrenching rollercoaster of emotional blackmail, will transfer with Lindsay Duncan and Matt Smith to the West End with a tentative April 21 opening at the Duke of York’s.

Stenham’s debut was matched by that of Anupama Chandrasekhar. Her startlingly strong “Free Outgoing,” about technology and sexual repressiveness, will return to the Royal Court main house in June.

Play of the year, however, was Dennis Kelly‘s compelling “Taking Care of Baby.” It began as a meticulously balanced reconstruction of a double-murder case taken word for word from interviews with its participants. So far, so docudrama. But a third of the way in, as Philip Roth does in his novel “The Human Stain,” Kelly pulled a thematically perfect, gasp-inducing switch.

It suddenly became clear that it wasn’t a person on trial, rather it was the whole vogue for verbatim drama. The entire picture widened into a fascinating, emotionally complicated examination of how the media’s lust for “fact” manipulates “truth.” That might sound like an intellectual conceit, but Kelly’s play packed emotional and dramatic power throughout.

Kelly’s new, as-yet-untitled play will premiere at Birmingham Rep in the autumn; BBC TV will soon begin screening the second series of his raunchy femme sitcom “Pulling” (co-written with Sharon Horgan); his first feature, “Blackout,” is in production for Big Talk Prods./Film4; he’s writing the book of a musical for the Royal Shakespeare Company for 2009, and he’s about to begin rehearsals for “DNA,” a play for young people at the National’s Cottesloe Theater.

The National, meanwhile, provided a home for two of the year’s finest pieces of direction. Marianne Elliott‘s riveting command of big-picture vision and closeup textual detail resulted in two grand-scale thrillers: George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” and emotional epic “War Horse.” Both represented a major meshing of production elements, thanks to designer Rae Smith and lighting designer Paule Constable. The best news about the extended SRO run of “War Horse”? The show will return next Christmas.

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